Chuck Turner Uses Council Seat to Stir Activism in Seventh District

Nine months on the Boston City Council have done little to change the anti-establishment persona that Chuck Turner groomed over the last 30 years as an activist in Boston's African-American communities.

The Roxbury resident first swooped across the city's political radars last fall during the campaign to fill the district seven seat left by two-term councillor Garreth Saunders. With an army of red sign-carrying supporters and a whimsical slogan ("Bold, Bald, and Bright")

Turner quickly bubbled up as the man to beat in a crowded field, promising to shake things up in the council chambers. And, true to his lengthy resume as an "inner-city agitator"- he has managed to stir the pot on a few occasions.

In August, Turner led a sit-in at the offices of Boston school superintendent Tom Payzant to protest the hiring of a new headmaster at Madison Park. Last week, Turner was in protest mode again, joining a group of activists who refused to pay an extra 15 cents to ride an MBTA bus in town. This month, he also helped form a new organization called POWER, which hopes to rally parents of color to reform MCAS testing in local schools.

At 60 years old, Turner knows he is a late-bloomer as a politician, although he is hardly a newcomer to "the struggle." The Harvard University graduate and father of three cut his teeth on just about every important issue that came up in his neighborhood- and was a leading supporter of Mel King's 1983 mayoral bid. Turner still identifies himself as a member of the Rainbow Coalition Party.

In the seventies, Turner helped form a grassroots group that blocked a state plan to build an interstate highway through the southwest corridor in Roxbury. With others, he founded the Roxbury Neighborhood Council and has more recently worked as a counselor for Emerge, a program that helps battered women.

Turner seems most comfortable in his district office in Dudley Square, where the councillor with the long, white goatee spends his Fridays meeting -and eating lunch- with whoever walks through his doors. Turner says he's the only Boston city councillor who keeps a district office open and staffed five days a week. The Roxbury Street office is also a base of operations for community activism in the Dudley Square area.

Turner's office serves as a meeting hall and a place for neighbors to put together mailings and plan "actions." Once a month, it also serves as the venue for Turner's own District Seven Roundtable, which brings together constituents "from every corner" of his district, including parts of the Uphams Corner, Grove Hall and Dudley Street sections of Dorchester.

"My background is as an organizer," says Turner. "I thought it was possible to use the office of city councillor as an organizing base and to do that while continuing to handle my responsibilities as a council person."

One of Turner's latest projects is to help organize a system of block captains who will help him monitor the city's housing crisis. Turner wants a team of volunteers to fan out across the district to find out what kinds of problems are out there. When they come across an issue, like a landlord raising the rent exorbitantly, Turner and company plan to use the information to move "pro-actively."

"The reality of it is that the nature of the (housing) problem is so immense that just responding to calls or working on legislation is a very long term strategy," says Turner.

"It's healthy when you get people in a community who aren't just sitting back and calling the councillor and saying 'fix it,'" he says.

Chuck Turner says that there has never been a time in his 33 years in Boston when the city's neighborhoods were better positioned for "change." And, yet, even Turner, who brought a bomb-tossing reputation with him to city hall, says he has been taken aback by how the city council body operates.

"After nine months, my view is that (council president James) Kelly tries to manage the day to day business of the council in a way that is fair to all the councillors," says Turner, who admits he did not think that was how the conservative South Boston politician operated.

"I wouldn't expect that to be his style," admits Turner.

Still, Turner says he probably will not support Kelly for re-election as council president in January, mostly because he says his constituents find Kelly's positions on issues like affirmative action and school integration to be "offensive."

"It would be hard for me to support him next year as president of the council, even though I have to acknowledge that he does a good job of chairing it, because my constituents are offended by having the president of the city council take such negative stands. So it's the price you have to pay for the positions he takes. It's nothing personal, it's just politics," says Turner.

On October 5, Turner will join with other Dorchester elected officials in sponsoring an evening job fair at the Strand Theatre designed to attract more Boston residents to the construction industry. Turner spent much of his career as an activist clamoring for equal access to union jobs for minorities and women. Today, he says says some progress has been made- but believes some union leaders remain resistant to change.

"There are cases where people from our community are being excluded from jobs because of the attitudes of union leaders in terms of not be willing to take people of color- even those who are being sent over by contractors," says Turner. "There is still a level of tension and frustration with some locals. The Carpenters (local 67 in Dorchester) seem to be the most advanced in terms of their outreach and integration of their organizing forces and really are trying to lay the foundation for the future."

As for his own future, it's pretty clear that Chuck Turner finds the job of city councillor much to his liking.

"I love it," he says. "I'd like to be here for at least four to six years and I'm definitely planning to run in 2001, and then I think I'd like to run in 2003.

"The only problem I have is we don't have an eight-day week," Turner jokes. "If we had an eight day week I'd be smiling every minute of the day. This seven day week is a little tough."

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